The Middle Distance 6.29.12

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Photo by Sean Cayton

“There is so much smoke in the air that you can’t see the mountains in the west. A rust-colored haze stains the sky.”

This description refers not to Colorado Springs and points west following the eruption of the Waldo Canyon fire last week, but to a fictional near future described in William J. Cobb’s just released novel, The Bird Saviors (Unbridled Books). The setting is Pueblo and the Wet Mountains or Sierra Mojada to the west, projected five to ten years forward.

“Some of the things [depicted in the book] are happening faster than I expected,” Cobb said from his southern Colorado home eight miles from Westcliffe. “When I first started writing the book we weren’t in a drought and now we’ve had several years of severe drought.”

The Pueblo landscape of The Bird Saviors is beset by economic disparity, crime, rough winds, dust storms, and anomalies of nature like pink snow, and central to the book’s two main characters is the diminishing bird population. Seventeen-year old Ruby Cole is the single mother of a baby girl and the daughter of a disabled war veteran whose fundamentalist leanings lead her to call her father Lord God. She is also a perceptive observer of the avian world, a skill that leads her to Ward Costello, a grief-stricken ornithologist who’s lost his wife and daughter to the bird flu epidemic enveloping the region. Striking out for independence and a better life, Ruby takes a job with Costello counting birds.

“Ward, to me, is the good guy of the story,” says Cobb, “trying to do the right thing.” In Ward’s words, he is seeking “a plan for a life worth living. Something whole and different.” A birder himself, Cobb uses the book as a platform to voice his concern for bird populations, greatly down in the Great Plains region of the United States, “some 40 to 80 percent.”

The Bird Saviors hits close to home in its depiction of natural phenomena and the extraordinarily beautiful and harsh Colorado landscape, while it admittedly takes liberties with its depiction of the breakdown of law and order and the background story of the bird flu epidemic, something Cobb hopes and believes will never happen in the real New West.

The author casts a steely eye on this New West and its unique challenges: the current drought spurred by the warmest spring on record, the water problems of the American West exemplified by places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and apparent in stark relief this summer of 2012 in Colorado. The soberingly realistic aspect of the book is tempered, however, by Cobb’s affection for the region and its colorful history. He has populated The Bird Saviors with a cast of misfits and outlaws, preachers and lawmen whose stories reflect western legend and myth, good and evil, frontier humor, and the struggle for survival in rough times.

“What I’ve tried to do is to superimpose a vision of the Old West onto the New West,” he says. “I live on a hillside where you can still see the signs of homesteaders up on the mountain.” The remains of an old cabin in front of his house, on his five acres of land, stands as a reminder of the Old West history the author cherishes.

Vivid characters wander the stark landscape of The Bird Saviors, and the book’s dark vision is tethered to hope for humanity. Colorado author Kent Haruf has characterized it as “a stark modern-day Old Testament story in which the evil that men do is barely balanced by the good that a few manage to achieve.” The supporting characters — among them a sheriff who patrols on horseback, and an imposing Native American named Crowfoot who paints petroglyphs on a cliff wall by the light of the moon — are neither all good nor all bad, and in many cases we are surprised by their redemptive actions.

Ward Costello finds hope in spite of himself: “Hope … something you can carry in your pocket. Something you can give to others.”

Ruby Cole turns out to be one rough and tumble heroine, a 17-year old whose change of fate is hard-earned and well deserved. It’s not giving away too much of the book’s plot to tell you that Ruby attends to her father, Lord God, when he lays in bed delirious with fever from the bird flu near the book’s end.

As he lays dying, Lord God observes: “We’re all under the weather. Some more than others.”

— William J. Cobb will read from and discuss The Bird Saviors on Thursday, July 5, at 5:30 p.m. at The Book Haven, 135 F Street, in Salida. For more information, call 719-539-9629.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


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